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A noted Catholic journalist extrapolates from current trends to Future Church

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 28, 2010 | In Reviews

Predicting the future is a risky and futile enterprise. We don't know what surprises tomorrow will bring, and it's foolish to pretend that we do.

However, extrapolating current trends into the future, and trying to recognize their likely implications, is a valuable endeavor. That's how prudent investors make money on the stock market. And that's how John Allen has produced a very useful and challenging book: The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church.

Allen writes regularly for the National Catholic Reporter, and some conservative readers cannot see past that unfortunate connection to recognize that Allen is an good old-fashioned reporter: honest, perceptive, and extremely well connected. After years in Rome he knows the field, he knows the players, and he recognizes the important trends.

In Future Church, Allen identifies ten important trends which, he argues, will dramatically alter the "look and feel" of Catholicism in coming years. He then tries to predict the consequences of these trends, distinguishing between some consequences that seem inevitable and some that are merely possible.

In all likelihood, no thoughtful Catholic will read this book without finding occasion to differ with Allen on one point or another. The author does not claim to be infallible in his choice of the most important issues confronting the Church, nor in his prognostications about how they will shape further developments. But I, for one, was surprised to see how often I agreed with Allen: a remarkable convergence of opinions considering that… well, he writes for the National Catholic Reporter.

The Church today is growing much faster in Africa and South America than in Europe and North America. That trend is already well established. In the absence of some spectacular unforeseen development, the demographic weight of global Catholicism will shift to the global south, and it is reasonable to expect major changes in the composition of the hierarchy, the issues that dominate Church affairs, and the language used to address those issues. No, the Church will not change her fundamental doctrines. But evangelists will find different ways to explain those doctrines to a very different audience. It is fascinating-- and edifying-- to try to imagine how missionaries from Africa might go about the re-evangelization of a thoroughly secularized Europe. Future Church twists the reader's imagination in that direction.

The dawn of the 21st century has brought new political issues to the fore: the globalization of the economy, the biotech revolution, movements of mass migration, and the rise of militant Islam. These are all issues that the Church must address, and undoubtedly will address with greater urgency as the years pass. How can the wisdom of Catholic social teaching be brought to bear on these issues-- keeping in mind that fewer people are predisposed to listen to the advice of Christianity?

Among the 10 major trends that Allen discerns, I was happiest to note "Evangelical Catholicism"-- an approach to the faith that emphasizes the missionary nature of the Church and sets out to bring the Gospel message to the whole of society, rather than settling for the survival of existing parishes and church structures. It is not unreasonable to surmise that the Catholics who have the greatest impact on society in coming years will be those who try to have such an impact, rather than those huddled in a defensive posture.

Allen notices that the most vigorous, growing Catholic communities are the ones that unabashedly promote Church teachings on controversial moral issues. If his predictions are accurate, his colleagues at the Reporter will not be comfortable with doctrinal developments over the next generation. On the other hand, Allen's predictions about liturgical changes will worry traditionalists. Nearly any reader will be vexed by some of Allen's glimpses into future Church policy, buoyed by others, and in general stimulated by the effort to anticipate both the dangers and the opportunities we Catholics are likely to face. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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